The Importance of Research for Creating a Digital Strategy

Article by Crystal White
16 minutes 49 seconds read

How many people have bought a car without ever having conducted research on it beforehand? Or what about purchasing a house without spending a significant portion of time reviewing location, schools, comps of similar houses in the area to determine value?

If we don’t make high-ticket purchases as consumers without extensive research, then why is it that marketers and executives want to jump into building a customer-facing tool without first investing in determining what that tool should be and if it meets with the buyer’s needs?

In my experience, the reasons I have been told are: limited budget and limited internal resources, but I think those reasons obscure the real reason so many companies don’t invest in the research they need to inform the right digital strategy: a lack of understanding of how important in-depth qualitative and quantitative research is for making sure companies not only build the right thing—but they build it in the right way.

What research provides is objective, data-driven insight into the organization, into competitors, and into customers, and prospects. With that data, competitive advantages become clear which then become the approach to designing an experience to gain market share. Without that information, design becomes a best-guess scenario with stakeholders, potentially with competing interests, making subjective decisions.

Which is why so many website redesigns and content marketing approaches fail to deliver a strong return on investment—because the team never had an informed strategy to begin with.
This is what we do in our strategy team at Launch. We review quantitative data, and we use that data to inform first-person interviews and surveys. We then take that qualitative data, marry it to the quantitative, and compare the information against competitor findings to highlight competitive advantages in the digital space. From there, you can create compelling content to meet the needs of prospects, customers, and employees.

Marketers and executives need to reframe their thinking about research. It isn’t about the cost of doing research. It’s about the opportunity cost of not having done it. How many opportunities are being overlooked—opportunities for increasing revenue, increasing efficiency and profit, and reducing customer attrition? Research defines those opportunities, and strategy leverages them to deliver value to the enterprise.

Defining Competitive Advantage

In my career, I’ve interviewed thousands of people, and most executives, product managers, marketers and salespeople have been able to tell me the value proposition of their product or service. But, most couldn’t define it succinctly. Furthermore, they couldn’t define how their product or service was differentiated in the market, and few had verified that the buyer actually cared about that difference. Value propositions are defined as value perceived by the buyer—not the inventor, not the CEO, and not by the marketing or sales team. So whatever the difference is in the product or service, that must be a difference both perceived by the buyer and valuable enough to her that she’ll go through the pain of switching from a competitor. This is where customer research comes into play. It’s necessary to interview and survey customers to determine the value they perceive in a product or service, relative to competing products and services. And in my experience of interviewing executives, marketers, salespeople, technologists, and customer support representatives—it is almost always not what the company presents in their collateral.

As an objective researcher, I appreciate that stakeholders in the project sincerely believe their product is the best, and there is nothing like it on the market; however, unlike the stakeholders, I am unbiased which means I want to determine from the voice of the customer how value is actually perceived and what can be improved in the digital space to increase customer satisfaction. This is why customer data is so critical, and it is always illuminating.

The types of information I’ve uncovered have included everything from how pointless a company’s website was believed to be (lacking any content meaningful to the customer) to how unwieldy their “award-winning” software was to use. I’ve learned how backoffice fulfillment required a system of post-it notes, and spreadsheets, and enterprise software—all which could have been easily solved through a better online order management system. I’ve learned about order errors, bad data, impossible forecasting, disparate data systems and different processes for capturing data between marketing and sales teams which prevented a single view of the customer.

One thing I’ve learned in researching companies for the past 15 years: Every company has something broken in their process, and it’s usually several things. The value of research prior to jumping into a new project is that it brings to light the most significant obstacles and provides a strategy for overcoming them. It’s about using an informed approach to solving both sales and operational inefficiencies through automation of process and better brand engagement through a content-first approach.

Interviewing Stakeholders for Actionable Insights

When most people respond to my request for stakeholder interviews, they immediately think of project sponsors which is typically the marketing team and an executive sponsor. That’s fine for baseline information about the problem that particular group is trying to solve, but that provides a limited view of which problems should be solved and in which order by comparing the value to the enterprise as a whole, judged against perceived level of effort. In our role as a professional solutions company, we’re happy to address methods for solving the problem the marketing team is aware of, but because our knowledge expands multiple industries with similar challenges, we want to talk to more than just the project sponsors. When I say “stakeholder,” what I mean is anyone who has a vested interest in the company’s success which is why it extends beyond the marketing team and into current and former customers and employees who have a responsibility to the customer.

When I recommend a research project to a client, I recommend speaking to the following people:

  • An executive stakeholder (CMO, CEO, CTO, depending on what the product/service is and what the research seeks to understand)
  • A senior level marketer and/or product manager
  • The company’s most successful salesperson
  • A salesperson who is struggling to make quota
  • A range of customers (advocates, new customers, former customers)
  • A prospect who went through the entire sales process and ultimately selected a competitor
  • A customer support representative
  • If software, a person involved in customer on-boarding (like a trainer or product manager)

I also recommend either employing a survey to gather both qualitative and quantitative data from customers. Depending on what I want to learn, I may provide specific profile details on who to recruit and potentially recommend utilizing software to intercept users as they engage with either the software or website.

Using Industry Analysis to Uncover Advantage

In my experience, marketers and salespeople are always eager to learn more about their competitors and never push back on conducting competitive research. But comparative analysis typically takes a bit of explanation. Whereas competitive analysis reveals the strategy of a company’s rivals, the comparative review serves as a point of inspiration. To build the best experience for customers, it’s important to observe what competitors are doing, but it is not enough to mimic their approach. To build a better brand identity, it’s important to step outside your own industry and learn from other industries how to create the most engaging experience for your customers while maintaining the authenticity of your own brand.

My approach to competitive analysis is to do the following:

  • If public, I read the company annual reports, paying close attention to how they talk about the wins they’ve had in the previous year or the risks they’re disclosing. Any risk your competitor is facing is a potential competitive advantage you can leverage.
  • If private, I’ll review all information I can find online from news to social media posts to product reviews.
  • At times, I may even go so far as to call a competitor’s sales team to determine how their salespeople speak about their value proposition and the supporting collateral they send or reference.
  • Then, I read up on the industry to determine where the client falls within their industry: are they a leader, or do they lag behind other companies? What is their market share? Where is the industry going? Where is the growth expected to be, what challenges face the industry as a whole?

Once I understand the industry and competitors, then I do a deep dive into everyone’s digital presence. What I’m looking for is their approach to their audience, their message to that audience, how they layer that meaning through targeted content, variation in content (copy, video, imagery, interactive assets), and how they approach lead gen. I’ll sign up for newsletters and review those to see if what is being created is quality content, or if it’s just content for the sake of having something to send to a prospect.

What I have found is that few competitors actually do the great job our customer’s salespeople and marketers think they’re doing. Particularly, with salespeople, when they struggle against competitors during the buying process, they like to rely upon the brand recognition of the incumbent, all the competitor information available to customers, how “cool” or “slick” or “clean” the website design is—all without actually understanding whether the content presented in the experience actually meets the needs of the buyer.

Because it isn’t enough to just have content to have something online for prospects and customers. In fact, when you publish content which is irrelevant to your buyer’s needs, you clutter up the experience, confuse the buyer about what your product or service actually delivers, and you divert attention away from the information the buyer is there to discover. Not one piece of content, whether a blog post, social media post, interactive asset, or new web page should be published without careful attention to who the audience is, and how the message to that audience solves their problems and will be perceived as making their lives easier or more enjoyable. This doesn’t mean that all content published must be about the buyer or customer—it can also be directed to current or potential employees, investors, a greater community supported by the company, and more. But, know your audience and target that message to them in the channel most likely to engage them.

And this is where competitive advantage in the digital space comes into play. Particularly with B2B companies who haven’t caught on to how to engage buyers on an emotional level. There is a significant opportunity for B2B companies to drive value to the buyer by creating an online presence which is so much more engaging, more thoughtful, and more accessible than that of their competitors. It is an exciting time to be a B2B marketer, but you need the research and the strategy to know how, where, and with what to engage your buyers.

Determining Buyer Needs

Buyer needs are easy to uncover. Depending on time constraints, I either like to start with a survey to a larger sample size or with a very targeted survey to a small sample size  of typically 30-50 customers. For these targeted surveys, I always recommend that the marketers have the account managers send out a survey to ask for their customers.

The typical response rate I see from an impersonal email sent out through a provider like Mailchimp is 2%, but the response rates are much higher if it comes directly from the account manager. For the purposes of gaining a breadth of data, 50 responses is excellent, but even a response rate of 20 provides a good foundation of customer pain points, satisfaction levels with the product/company, and how they view the product relative to competitors.

Once I have completed analysis of the survey data, I use that information to inform discussions I have with customers, asking them probing questions about what would improve their lives or understanding about the product and how they’d like to consume that content. It is this information which is so critical to creating the strategy for what to build and how. I typically spend between 30-60 minutes on the phone with customers, depending on how much information I need to uncover.

Later in the design process, we test designs and approaches with customers to validate assumptions from what we learned early in the research process, but without customer insights, designers and marketers are blindly making decisions about what is going to improve the customer’s understanding and ability with the product, and ultimately, their relationship with you.

Targeting Content through Audience Analysis

One of the most important things you can do to build the right experience is to nail down the message you want your audience to come away with. You should be able to say in no more than 1-2 sentences exactly what you want your buyers to understand. This message determines the approach to the content you create, the publication strategy, and the overarching story under which every single line of copy, image, CTA and more must ladder up to in order to engage your audience, create meaning in their minds, and direct them to the action you wish them to take.

Before crafting your message and the varied supportive content to be used for layering your story, you first need to consider your audience. The research conducted with salespeople is used for this part of the strategy because salespeople can name without the slightest pause who their target buyer is and describe them in terms of title, budget authority, decision-making authority, the percentage of business driven by that buyer, and more. They are also indispensable in defining secondary and tertiary audiences in terms of important influencers within the organization, buyers the company wants to engage in the future, etc. I use this information to define who the primary audience is for the experience.

As a rule of thumb, I aim for about 70% of the content to be addressed to the primary audience, while the remaining content would be dedicated to the secondary and tertiary audiences (key influencers, buyers for a new product or service to be released, or a new market for an existing product or service). As part of your growth strategy, you should plan for your content to address the needs of secondary and tertiary audiences. I like using an editorial calendar which defines topics to address the needs of all 3 buyers, so that at a glance, I can see that the proportions are maintained for each of the target audiences, ensuring that all key buyers have the information they need.

Your primary audience needs are discovered during interviews with customers, sales, and customer support. Listening to the customers talk about their challenges and how they’re solved by the product provides the key message which feeds the stories you create and publish.

Aligning Audience to Content

From the audience analysis (which can come from interviews, surveys, analytics, and reviewing other data sources), you should think about more than just what your buyers and customers want to learn. You also need to pay close attention to how they want to learn it. By reviewing demographical data, you can learn your buyers’ preferences for content types (video over copy, imagery over video, AR/VR, podcasts, etc.), and you can also learn the device they are most likely to use to consume it. By understanding your core audience demographics, the technology they use, the content preferences they have, and the channels they are most engaged in, you can develop the strategy which aligns your content with what is most likely to meet their needs.

Once you have that understanding, you can create a content strategy to incorporate preferences. An editorial guide can help you keep an eye on types of content being created for your audience as well as topics which align to buyer interests. Just keep in mind that you can always experiment with various types of content, using a variety of analytics and A/B testing to determine what your unique users connect with. By determining the content of greatest interest to them, you can personalize the experience to serve up similar topics and types.

Connecting to Audience through Channel Strategy

Using the information you uncovered during research about your audience, you can define which channels are most likely to drive engagement with your content. If you want to grow your audience, encourage social sharing, and be able to refine your content strategy over time, it’s best to build a strategy around the social channels your audience is already using.

Depending on professional interests and demographic data, your audience may engage with one or more social channels in a specific way. For example, Generation X audiences are highly engaged with Facebook, but what they look for is largely social interaction with their network and entertainment; however, the same audience also engages in LinkedIn which they use for professional learning and networking.

Once you understand not only where your key audience engages but why they pick those particular channels, then you can tailor your content to be appropriate to each channel. Furthermore, you can establish different tones for your company voice to be suitable the different channels. For example, you can provide thought leadership with a more professional tone on LinkedIn, but you can have more casual, fun posts about your company and team shared on Instagram. What this does is reflects the various areas of your company’s personality while targeting a specific audience with a specific purpose for engaging on that channel.

Defining Success with KPIs

By starting with analytics (which can range from reviewing traffic, to time spent on site, to lead gen from specific assets and forwards/shares of your content), you can establish a baseline of how your content has previously performed. From there, you can review your overall company goals and use those to generate KPIs from your new content efforts.

For example, if the company wants to drive sales through an e-commerce site, then by improving your content and making checkout easier, you can drive sales. So, a KPI to measure that would be increased number of purchases made through the website. Another goal could be decreased phone-in sales because those sales require the assistance of people and increases company overhead. By driving buyers to check-out online, you can drive revenue and profit for the company.

If your company has a consultative sales approach to products or services, requiring engagement over time with both marketing and sales teams, then a good goal to look at would be an increased number of qualified leads and, conversely, a decreased number of unqualified leads. Many companies only focus on increasing leads, regardless of quality; however, the sales team is often the most expensive team in the company, so every hour they waste on a bad lead is costly to the organization. By decreasing bad leads, you increase the ability for your team to focus on the good ones which is a far better use of the sales team’s time and the company’s money.

This is where audience identification and matching of content to their needs becomes critical. By providing the information your key buyers need and making your value proposition targeted to these buyers, you make it easier for prospects who are going to waste your sales team’s time to self-select out and move on.

By making your message clear, targeted, and specific, you will increase the number of leads from companies who match your prospect profile, and you shorten the sales cycle by reducing time spent on bad leads. In this, marketing becomes aligned with the goals of the sales team as well as with the overall organizational goals, making your company more efficient and profitable.

By spending the time to conduct a thoughtful research project which includes digging into the industry, the customer, and competitors, as well as the process from initial search on the company to fulfillment of the product or service, competitive advantage can be discovered, inefficiencies removed, and the customer experience as well as the employee experience within a company can be improved.